What a pleasure it is, in this day and age when most plays in L.A. seem to be based more on themes explored in episodes of Law & Order or Six Feet Under, to find an audacious and deeply philosophical drama that is founded on classical works. Writer/ director Tony Tanner's ambitious prequel to Sophocles' Oedipus trilogy is by no means perfect—the writing is too verbose by half, and the structural organization is muddy and lacking in conflict—but the piece is a fascinating meditation on the concepts running through the original story.
The play takes place in the netherworld, where old King Laius (Tanner), the father of Oedipus, finds himself after having been murdered by his son (Gregory Giles). But the Oedipus tale here is told from Laius' point of view. As he prepares to "move forward," he's confronted with various ghosts of his past—and, even more interestingly, of his future. He's visited by the ghost of his boyhood lover, Chrysippus (Adam Finkel), and his beautiful wife, Jocasta (Inger Tudor), and he also sees glimpses of the horror he set into action by trying to kill Oedipus as an infant.
The idea of a prequel setting the stage for the Sophocles plays is so obvious, it's a wonder modern playwrights haven't thought of it before. But Tanner writes more than a mere interpolation of events: He fleshes out scenes in the original drama that are shown only offstage, and he provides insightful psychological background that the original text hints at but doesn't explore. At the same time the drama also provides a haunting portrait of a man at late middle age, poised between regret and acceptance of life's disappointments. It's a fascinating, intellectually crackling set of concepts and notions.
Tanner is wonderfully tender and world-weary as the sad-faced dead monarch, and Giles is engrossing as he does a shorthand devolution from proud monarch to crippled shaman. Anna Lanyon offers a wonderfully steely turn as Antigone, while Edmund L. Shaff makes a brilliantly oily Creon, waiting in the wings for his chance to usurp the throne.
"The Oedipus Tree," presented by the Bare Bones Theatre Company at Great Hall, Plummer Park, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 7 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. (extra performance on Sat., July 24 at 3 p.m.) July 3-31. Free; suggested $10 donation. (323) 461-5570.